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Top 10 Films of 2016

It’s been a rough year – culturally, politically, pretty much every way-ly. The movies, as they often do, offered some reprieve. I wanted to honor the 10 films that most resonated with me in 2016. I’m going to try my best to avoid spoilers, but you might be able to infer plot and character details from some of the write-ups. So, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing and you haven’t seen a particular film, give that section a skip!

10.) American Honey

Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” is not going to be for everyone. Like one of her earlier films, “Fish Tank,” it confronts poverty and not in an especially sanitized way. Star (Sasha Lane) is living on the fringe. She takes up a job selling magazines with a troupe of young people, among them her on-again-off-again lover, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). It’s a road movie populated by big and sometimes grating personalities, but it shows pockets of America that aren’t often seen on screen. Star is a character of almost unbridled spirit. Arnold mines a lot of tension out of putting her in very compromising situations. A standout sequence involves her getting in a car with a bunch of leering cowboys. She goes to one of their mansions, and the booze starts to flow. You speculate about the number of ways it could go wrong and how badly. Yet it’s a film of great beauty. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s images are bursting with life and color.

american honey

9.) The Jungle Book

Jon Favreau’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” has stayed with me since April, thanks to its vibrant imagery. Favreau employed a strategy similar to that of James Cameron’s for “Avatar,” where he created a world almost entirely within the computer save for Neel Sethi playing Mowgli. For once, celebrity voice casting doesn’t feel like a stunt. Bill Murray brings his…Bill Murrayness to the role of Baloo the bear. He’s wry, humorous and lovable. And Idris Elba voices Shere Khan with menace to spare. When so many blockbusters see fit to make their antagonists as bland and uninteresting as possible, it was a real relief to see a film – a family film! – make its villain genuinely menacing and filled with resolve. At the beginning of 2016, I would have never expected to see a live-action remake of a Disney film on my year-end top 10. But here we are!

8.) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Writer/director Taika Waititi first came to my attention with “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilarious mockumentary about mild-mannered vampire flatmates. In “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” he abandons the faux-documentary approach for a much more controlled aesthetic. The film is scarcely less funny than “What We Do in the Shadows,” but it also swims in deeper and more dramatic waters. Juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is taken to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her ornery mountain-man husband, Hec (Sam Neill). After a tragic turn of events, Ricky and Hec are on the run from the authorities. One of the funniest moments in the film comes when young Ricky sees a Wanted poster of Hec. “Cauc…asian,” he reads. “Well, they’ve got that wrong, because you’re obviously white.”

7.) Kubo and the Two Strings

I’m a big fan of Laika – they’re one of the last studios working in stop-motion animation. Travis Knight’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” has them tackling their largest canvas yet. A one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is warned by his mother not to stay out after sunset or powerful entities, his aunts (Rooney Mara) and grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), will come for his other eye. Like children in many fairy tales, Kubo does not heed his mother’s warning. He is then thrust into a quest with a guardian monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle-like samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to find magic armor that will help him defeat his enemies. I love the tactile nature that comes with stop-motion animation – whether it’s a ship made out of leaves or a skeleton giant (an effect that’s revealed in the end credits of the film).

6.) Jackie

Depicting grief on a grand and very public scale, Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” is hypnotic and intoxicating. Uniquely and loosely structured by screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, it largely follows Jackie Kennedy through the days after her husband’s assassination. Natalie Portman, an actress I’m usually colder on than hot, plays the First Lady. She’s outstanding. So much of the film is about the friction between private and public life in the wake of such loss, and Portman portrays both pageantry and vulnerability. So too does cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s camera, the way it depicts Jackie in her home – a small figure moving through an expansive estate. The film was shot on 16mm, which is very rare today. I love the grainy look of it with its muted colors, like a photograph that’s fading. Mica Levi’s Bernard Herrmann-y score also provides an undercurrent of emotion, roiling beneath the immaculate and picturesque images.

5.) Everybody Wants Some!!

From “Before Midnight” to “Boyhood” and now “Everybody Wants Some!!,” writer/director Richard Linklater has been on a hot streak. His latest harkens back to his own “Dazed and Confused.” Linklater even described it as a spiritual sequel to that 1993 comedy. A group of college baseball players spend the final days of summer drinking, hanging out, and chasing after women. Like “Boyhood” and “Dazed,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” is an exploration of the margins of adolescence and the transition into adulthood. As such, it is one of Linklater’s funniest films. From the politics of choosing a bar to competitive activities like bloody knuckles and ping pong to bets placed on whether a player can split a pitched baseball with an axe. Though Linklater isn’t known for his strong visual sense, the camera seems freer here, following these young men around their college community and capturing the waning days of summer and the beginning of a new chapter.

4.) Moonlight

There’s an image from Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” that has been making the rounds in the press. It’s of Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaching young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim. Juan holds the boy on his back in the ocean. The camera is just above water level, the sun glinting off the surface. I think the image has resonated because it really is emblematic of the entire film – beauty and grace. It depicts three chapters in Chiron’s life (in addition to Hibbert, the character is played by teenager Ashton Sanders and adult Trevante Rhodes). There are hard knocks to be sure. Juan sells drugs to Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). As a boy, Chiron is learning about himself and his sexuality. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a young man he has feelings for, is coerced into bullying him. Jenkins and his cinematographer, James Laxton, implement slow-motion and close-ups to capture wordless looks and gestures that speak volumes.


3.) 10 Cloverfield Lane

“The Twilight Zone” is one of my favorite TV shows, and in a year that could have been ripped from the imagination of Rod Serling, it’s fitting that a film that feels like a feature-length episode would find itself on this list. A loose – and I do mean loose – sequel to 2008’s “Cloverfield,” “10 Cloverfield Lane” is about a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who finds herself in an underground bunker after a car accident. The bunker belongs to Howard (John Goodman), and he tells her that a massive attack – international or extra-terrestrial, he’s not sure – has eradicated all life on the surface. But Michelle and her co-occupant, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), aren’t certain they can trust him. The direction is remarkably assured for first-time feature filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg. His taut camerawork gives the viewer details to focus on. A set of keys have rarely felt so momentous. I really liked the opening passage, a mostly dialogue-free stretch showing Michelle fleeing her apartment, getting into the accident and attempting to free herself from captivity. The screenwriters refreshingly allow Michelle – Winstead is so great in the role – to be resourceful and active. In that regard, it’s a film that bucks many horror and thriller trends.

2.) The Handmaiden

Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) hires Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) as a handmaiden to help him to steal the inheritance of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a woman he plans to marry. Fans of international cinema as well as just gonzo cinema in general will recognize writer/director Park Chan-wook from his work on “Oldboy.” Here, he navigates through twists and turns, alternating perspectives as he goes. “The Handmaiden” is a triumph of both embracing and subverting the ol’ Hitchcock saying about suspense being when the audience has information that characters do not. Based on what we know, we make assumptions on what’s about to happen. Sometimes those assumptions are correct, and sometimes they’re thrillingly wrong. The result is one of the most cinematic films of the year as well as one of the most deliriously entertaining.

1.) Manchester by the Sea

Jaw-dropping. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, so much so that it loses all meaning. Well, there’s a reveal about 45 minutes into “Manchester by the Sea” that’s just that. My hand shot to my mouth, agape, before an eruption of tears. Just open weeping. Kenneth Lonergan’s film is about Lee (Casey Affleck), a blue-collar guy who returns to his hometown after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks). He forges a tumultuous relationship with his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Though there are emotional flare-ups to be sure, “Manchester” eschews the lofty speeches and plate-smashing that usually accompany a film of this sort. Lonergan traffics in messier and more honest terrain. A reunion between two characters late in the film is conducted in half sentences. It’s a stirring dramatization of what happen when words fail to heal wounds that run too deep. And yet, it’s a film of surprising humor and wit. Patrick has a panic attack after he puts some chickens in the freezer. “If this is gonna happen every time you see frozen chicken, I think I should take you to the hospital,” Lee tells him. “Because I don’t know anything about that.” The humor is welcome and much needed.


And now some honorable mentions: “Certain Women,” “La La Land,” “Moana,” “The Nice Guys” and “Sing Street.”

I would love to hear what 2016 films stood out to you. Please comment below. Thanks so much for reading!

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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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43 thoughts on “Top 10 Films of 2016

  1. I never watch movies the year they come out.
    Therefore, literally the only movie I watched that came out last year was: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday
    It was a fun romp, well worth the watch — even though it was a movie that was never supposed to get released (Blame Maybe for that).

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    • Do you imagine Kubo being good for an almost 4-year-old? Mayo is at a point where he can follow along with the plot of a movie, so something with relatively linear action that isn’t too complex works for him. He also struggles with conflict in films, particularly characters that are truly mean… the archetypal evil incarnate villain who seems motivated by nothing more than wickedness and sadism, as this behavior is (thankfully) foreign to him. I don’t necessarily shelter him from such things but recognize difficulty digesting them in a meaningful way.

      (This is another reason I was so impressed with the storytelling and character development in “Moana”… even the supposed “bad guys” had motivations that made sense rather than just being a bunch of sociopaths you were supposed to hate and whose demise you were supposed to root for.)

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      • There is a fair amount of violence (including the death of a parent!) in the film.

        For a 12 year old? I’d recommend the movie without hesitation.

        For a 4 year old? I’d seriously ask you to watch the movie yourself first because I could easily see it being very traumatic.

        But I say that as a kid who was wrecked by Watership Down.

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  2. I’ve only seen Kubo and The Wilderpeople.

    I agree with Doctor Jay on Kubo. It’s an absolute delight and I find that it has surprising thematic depths and when you get into “the moral of the story”, it’s downright amazing. Wonderful stuff. HAVE KLEENEX HANDY.

    Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the best little “male bonding/coming of age” movies I’ve ever seen. Sam Neill is perfect and Julian Dennison is perfecter. I don’t know about you, but I fell in love with Rima Te Wiata in the first few minutes. She was… dang. I’ve run out of adjectives.

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  3. Interesting list.

    My favorite movie of the year was Our Little Sister by Kore-eda Hirokazu. Only technically new because it made the arthouse run this summer but came out in Japan in 2015.

    I’m disappointed that this movie found a typical art house audience in the United States (meaning people older than 55 and me). The movie dealt with a lot of themes that should be universal but in some very un-American ways. There are four sisters with not great and very neglectful parents but the sisters just dealt with this more in sorrow and in anger most of the time. I feel like the American variant would be more in anger and rebellion than in sorrow.

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      • I have no idea. Probably multiple reasons.

        Arthouse movies usually play in smaller theatres that can’t compete with your Alamo Squares and Multiplexes.

        Arthouse movies often don’t have huge advertising budgets and marketing campaigns.

        I also think it is partially cultural. Boomers were in their 20s when the arthouse scene was at its prime. You had Truffaut, Rohmer, Kurosawa, Bergman, Goddard, etc. making movies. It was cool to see these movies and Hollywood was slowly starting to be daring and more adult. I don’t know if this is true anymore. I discovered the stuff by being an arts obsessed high school and college student and living near a major city and having liberal parents who encouraged it.

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        • There used to be some cultural cachet you got by being into things like independent or foreign films, high modern art, or non-mainstream taste in general. I’d say it lasted all the way from the boomers to the Clinton years with some changes in what gave you cultural cachet. For instance being into foreign movies might have been bigger in the 1960s but indie movies were where the cachet was in the 1980s and 1990s. When the Internet really began to unravel the mass market, this sort of cachet disappeared because the mainstream disappeared.

          You can’t be cool because you like non-mainstream things when there isn’t much of a mainstream these days. I don’t even think that the Marvel movies and other blockbusters are as really mainstream in the way that Hollywood movies of the past were because the genre choice is smaller. In the past you had mainstream movies of all genres. Now anything other than a blockbuster or kid’s movie is non-mainstream.

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  4. 10 Cloverfield Lane was good.

    Arrival was a good one if your into alien+temporal weirdness.

    American Honey, just couldn’t make it past the first 5 minutes of that one.

    I tried to like Fences, but it was just too basic for what I have come accustomed to what Denzel usually does. Now Magnificent Seven that was the stuff, even better than the Equalizer IMO.

    Sully was really good if your into technical analysis of stuff, excellent movie and acting.

    Hacksaw Ridge, I wasn’t expecting to be as good as it was, really good story but of course heavily into the gore of war.

    Independence Day was kind of the same as the first with just some of the new alien tech dialed in.

    Star Trek Beyond was a good one.

    Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was ok, it was trying way to hard to be sweet.

    Gods of Egypt was almost too much in CGI land, and I like some CGI.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was expecting kind of a B movie here, but it was alright.

    Deepwater Horizon, if your into running cascade failure, this is the one. A really good movie, my favorite of the year.

    Jason Bourne was on par with the other ones.

    The Great Wall was a good one.

    Finest Hour, also a really good movie.

    London has Fallen, about the same quality as the last one.

    13 Hours, really good movie especially if you like those Alamo-ish type shootem ups.

    Still don’t know what to think of Suicide Squad.

    Warcraft was pretty awesome even though I haven’t had any previous exposure to that genre.

    Midnight Special was gritty and took awhile to get to the ending where it unfolded really nicely.

    Max Steel was kinda meh

    Ben Hur was kinda meh, and I really wanted it to be more than meh.

    I like Rogue One, good stuff.

    Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, well hell yes, every time.

    That’s what I got.

    Anyone seen The lost city of Z?

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  5. Ya know, as I round out my 40’s, going to the theater has become less and less… fun. I don’t think I went in ’16, and only once or twice in ’15. But thanks for putting this list together, as it makes me want to sift through the chaff for wheat, as you show us its out there.

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  6. My favorites of 2016 include

    Airlift an Indian movie about the largest air evacuation in world history, getting over 100,000 Indian citizens out of Kuwait in 1990 after Saddam invaded.

    Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or Highwater, and Hidden Figures, three movies that start with ‘H’.

    Lion, the true story of a lost child from India growing up in Australia and then finding his home village on Google maps.

    Passengers, which didn’t get such great reviews but which I thought was delightful.

    Zootopia, which had a plot that was interesting to adults.

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  7. 10 Cloverfield Lane was quite good but in terms of horror/sci-fi I thought the Witch was the best thing in theaters this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another movie as effective at putting the audience in another time. Unfortunately they marketed it like a run of the mill jump scare type of film and horror fans were disappointed to find something else, even if that something else was far better than the standard Blumhouse stuff being released.

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  8. This past year, the wife and I saw Star Wars TFA, Rogue One, Hidden Figures, and La La Land. (We also Singing in the Rain for the 65th anniversary showing)

    Rogue One was much much better than TFA. Both Hidden Figures and La La Land were very very good, but both in my mind were just below the hype for each (just barely in the case of Hidden Figures, a bit more in the case of La La Land). That is both had some visible weaknesses that I think could and should have been fixed, but are otherwise excellent in all other areas.

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    • I liked “Rogue One” as well. Though it didn’t have the polish of “The Force Awakens,” it was certainly more bold. It forged its own path and broadened the mythology.

      I was surprised by how much I liked “Hidden Figures.” Movies based on real events can feel like dusty history lessons, but not that one.

      Thanks for writing!

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